FARGO — A North Dakota group aimed at preventing child sex abuse is on track to release a resource guide next year that will help better educate schools and other organizations about the problem.
The resource is part of work done by the North Dakota Child Sex Abuse Prevention Task Force. The guide will provide curriculum to facilitate discussions about child sex abuse prevention with children, as well as training for adults, said Lindsey Burkhardt, director of the task force.
The information won’t be required to be taught in schools but will be available for use by schools and other entities that interact with children.
Information also will be available for parents to help keep children safe, Burkhardt said.
“This is a really comprehensive tool that our schools and other entities will be able to utilize to strengthen their policy in prevention,” she said.
The group also plans to launch a pilot project in Richland County in January meant to implement multi-level prevention practices, Burkhardt said. It will focus on targeted prevention education for both children and adults.
The project will incorporate public awareness and social media campaigns, as well as data analysis.
The task force is waiting to see if it will receive a grant for the pilot project, but they will proceed without that funding if necessary, Burkhardt said.
The North Dakota Legislature approved the creation of the task force in 2017. Lawmakers reauthorized the group in 2019, giving it another five years to conduct studies and create educational content.
Task Force Chair Christopher Johnson, who also is the CEO for the Fargo-Moorhead Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, credited Anna Frissell, executive director of the Red River Children’s Advocacy Center, for the creation of the task force. She has talked before state legislators for more than 30 years about the issue.
The state has more information about child sex abuse than 30 years ago, Johnson noted.
As of Nov. 30, North Dakota had 16,503 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect this year, including 246 reports of suspected child sexual abuse, according to the state Department of Human Services. Of the 491 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in that time frame, 33 involved child sexual abuse.
In 2021, there were 17,596 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, human services said. Of those cases, 446 were suspected child sexual abuse.
The state confirmed 901 cases of child abuse and neglect last year, including 83 cases of child sexual abuse.
About 90% of child sex abuse victims know their abuser, Burkhardt said. Roughly 30% of the children are abused by a relative, and 60% are abused by a person the family trusts, she said.
People were less likely to discuss the issue in the past because it was uncomfortable, Johnson said.
“With adults, we have to change the way we think about this issue, and we have to get over our own discomfort of it because they (the children) need us,” he said.
“They need us to be very, very comfortable in finding a strategy.”
Those who chose to push the discussions were pioneers of their time, he said. Because of them, society is more open to talking about child sex abuse, he said.
Johnson called the push for a task force a combined effort by providers across the state.
The task force is working on collecting data, listening to advocates and determining the state’s capacity to educate the public, he said.
“With adults, we’re looking for transformational learning,” he said.
“We want to change the way they think about these issues. And with children, it’s more about teaching them respect for their own boundaries, personal safety and trusting your helpers.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in four girls and one in 13 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. The World Health Organization has declared child sex abuse a global public health problem that has lasting negative impacts on abused children.
That includes physical, mental and behavioral consequences, the CDC said. The average lifetime cost per victim is roughly $210,000, according to the task force.
One of the goals of the task force is establishing primary prevention strategies to fight child sex abuse, Burkhardt said. That includes promoting community education, educating child service and programming providers, fostering coalitions and networks, and conducting a statewide environmental scan.
That scan consisted of a 13-question survey that asked about the processes and perspectives of preventing child sex abuse in North Dakota, according to the task force’s 2022 annual report.
Of the 203 responses from public, private and tribal schools, preschool and child care settings, and other youth-serving organizations, more than half said they didn’t provide child sex abuse education to children, employees and volunteers.
More than 80% didn’t educate parents or caregivers about the subject.
But 64% to 95% said education for children, depending on the age group, is “very important,” according to the survey. More than 90% said that education is also “very important” for teachers, coaches, parents and caregivers.
The greatest barrier to providing child sex abuse prevention education, according to 60% of the respondents, was a lack of an established curriculum, according to the report. Respondents also noted that the topic was uncomfortable or sensitive in nature, which could lead to social implications for providing the training, the report said.
Burkhardt said it is important to learn the facts of child sex abuse.
Some strategies in protecting children or spotting abuse include recognizing grooming and boundary violations, noticing someone who is overly interested in a child and paying attention to who children are spending time with, she said.
It’s also important to keep children in safe environments where they can be observed and interactions can be interrupted, if needed, she said.
“If we don’t understand child sexual abuse, we really can’t end it,” she said.
The task force can give hope to the public, Burkhardt said. It shows advocates are working to prevent child sex abuse, she said.
It is disheartening to see cases of child abuse, but it’s important to recognize people are looking for solutions, Johnson said.
“I hope that people do reach out and engage in conversations, because there’s a lot we can do,” he said. “The kids are really counting on us.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter April Baumgarten at 701-241-5417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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